Education Featured

Huffman Expects More Schools In State’s Achievement District

The state expects to add 10 or 12 schools next year to its specialized district aimed at helping schools that have fallen behind academically, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said during his department’s state budget hearing this week.

That would bring up to 18 schools operating under the umbrella of the Achievement School District, a state entity that has the power to take over failing schools. Like the schools already in the district, many of those additional schools will be in Memphis. Ten Memphis City schools, all in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools in terms of achievement, were notified this week that they will be taken over by the district, the Commercial Appeal reported Wednesday.

Huffman said schools in the Achievement district are operating with longer days, teaching until 4:30 p.m., and using data more aggressively to drive instruction. Huffman discussed the progress so far.

“I think they feel positive about the direction that they’re going, but it’s hard work,” Huffman said. “And I think everybody who works for the (achievement district) understands the very long path they have to go, because their goal is not to have these schools simply be less bad. They want these schools to be good schools where people want to send their children.”

The district was approved by the Legislature in 2010 as part of the state’s successful efforts to win Race to the Top funding for education reform.

The state won $501 million in that contest sponsored by the Obama administration, and Haslam asked Huffman if education officials are planning for what happens after that money is spent. The deadline is in about 18 months, Huffman said.

“We know that we will have to figure out, there will be some ongoing costs that we’ll need to absorb and make room for those costs because it’s the right thing to do,” Huffman said of planning at the state level. Local districts will have to decide whether to continue funding positions like math coaches created under the Race to the Top initiatives.

“When the money runs out they either need to figure out that this is an ongoing priority that’s worth the investment and therefore they need to spend the money on it and not spend someplace else, or they need to transition out of it,” Huffman said.

Huffman has proposed a 2 percent increase in the state share of his department’s funding, from $4.1 billion in the current year to $4.2 billion in 2013-14, the Tennessean reported.

One of the factors driving that increase is a projected $45 million bump to spending for local schools, Huffman said, based on the state law that proscribes state funding for local schools based on inflation and enrollment.

Press Releases

State Authorizing New Charter Schools in Memphis, Nashville

Press release from the State of Tennessee; June 4, 2012:

Nashville, TN (June 4, 2012) – Today the Achievement School District (ASD)—created to move the bottom 5 percent of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25 percent in five years—authorized seven proven charter management organizations to open new schools that will begin serving students in the 2013-2014 school year, with one, Rocketship Education, planning to open the following year. The charter groups approved will open nine new campuses in Memphis and Nashville in 2013 – 2014, and have plans to open a total of 41 schools by the 2019-2020 school year.

“We’re incredibly excited that these local and national charter leaders have stepped up to join the Achievement School District and serve our communities,” said Chris Barbic, ASD superintendent. “Tennessee is becoming the epicenter of educational transformation. Today represents a big step forward in expanding the educational opportunities for our students and families.”

KIPP Nashville and LEAD Public Schools and Rocketship Education will serve students in Nashville. Charter schools selected for Memphis include Aspire Public Schools, Capstone Education Group, Gestalt Community Schools, KIPP Memphis, and Rocketship Education.

A total of 10 charter groups applied to serve students in the ASD. Applicants went through a rigorous third party screening process, including interviews with a committee of experts and community members.

“We have some of the best schools in the country competing to serve our students in Tennessee,” said Malika Anderson, Chief Portfolio Officer for the ASD. “Our students are getting what they deserve—the absolute best.”

When fully grown out, the nine schools authorized to open in the 2013-2014 school year will serve nearly 3,000 students in Nashville and Memphis. When all 41 schools are open, this group of high-performing charter operators will serve 15,000 students zoned to schools currently in the bottom 5 percent.


Schools Authorized to Operate in Nashville

KIPP Nashville: KIPP is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 109 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 33,000 students KIPP Nashville prioritizes reading achievement by supplementing our standard curriculum with 3-5 additional hours of guided reading each week for every student in addition to grade-level reading and writing classes. The impact of the value we place on reading is evident — in 2011, KIPP Nashville students ranked number 1 for reading growth among their peers throughout Tennessee. For more information about KIPP Nashville, please contact Exec. Dir. Randy Dowell:

LEAD Public Schools, Tennessee’s first charter management organization, first opened its doors as LEAD Academy five years ago as a fifth and sixth grade program. LEAD Public Schools now operates four campuses: LEAD Academy Middle School, LEAD Academy High School, the state’s first conversion Cameron College Prep, and Brick Church College Prep. LEAD Public Schools’ diverse board and staff serve an equally diverse student body – over 90% of LPS students are of minority race/ethnicity, over 95% participate in the federal free or reduced lunch program, and nearly 14% receive special education services. In 2011, LEAD Academy made academic gains in all subjects that were among the top 5 percent for all schools in Tennessee, and was honored as a “Reward School” by the state. LEAD Public Schools works to transform the educational expectations of the Nashville community by promising to do “Whatever It Takes” to graduate 100% of its students prepared for acceptance to a four-year college or university. For more information about LEAD Public Schools, please contact Shaka Mitchell:

Rocketship Education is a leading non-profit public school system for low-income elementary students. Rocketship Education has pioneered the transformative Rocketship Education Model, which combines teacher development, parent empowerment and individualized learning to improve student achievement. Rocketship Education’s goal is to eliminate the achievement gap between low- and high-income communities across the country, allowing Rocketeers to succeed alongside their more affluent peers. Rocketship Education currently serves over 2,400 students in five charter schools in San Jose. For more information about Rocketship Education, please contact Sarah Johnson:


Schools Authorized to Operate in Memphis

Aspire Public Schools is a nonprofit organization that currently operates 34 high-performing, open-enrollment public charter schools serving 12,000 students in underserved communities across California. Aspire is one of the highest-performing public school systems in California, delivering a rigorous “College for Certain” education to students in grades K-12. An unrelenting focus on college preparedness led to 100 percent of graduating Aspire seniors being accepted to four year colleges or universities in 2010 and 2011. Aspire offers a high-quality education in six cities throughout California: Los Angeles, Oakland, Stockton, Sacramento, Modesto and East Palo Alto. For more information about Aspire, please contact Christine Schneider:

Capstone Education Group (Cornerstone Prep): Cornerstone Prep provides a quality, college preparatory education to families throughout Memphis. Cornerstone Prep’s approach to education is based on successful strategies modeled by the nation’s best urban schools, including intense focus on the core subjects of math and reading; extra learning time created by an extended academic day and year; standards-based lesson plans, curriculum, and assessments; intentional character and leadership development; and a fast-paced, challenging learning environment. Cornerstone Prep’s mission is to equip all students with the Wisdom and Knowledge necessary to succeed in college and to become leaders in their community. For more information on Capstone, contact Executive Director, Drew Sippel at

Gestalt Community Schools (GCS) is a system of K-12 college-preparatory charter schools in targeted Tennessee communities. GCS schools provide strong academic outcomes for their scholars through various initiatives, including meaningful community involvement. GCS catalyzes community leadership to help revitalize the neighborhoods in which its schools operate. Instead of debating whether education impacts the community or vice versa, GCS believes that the most effective method to support student achievement is an integration of education and community (a true “gestalt”). GCS currently operates Power Center Academy middle, the highest-performing middle school in the state. For more information about Gestalt Community Schools, contact Exec. Dir. Derwin Sisnett:

KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools: KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in underserved communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 109 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 33,000 students. KIPP came to Memphis in 2002 with the opening of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle, which last year was ranked the highest performing charter middle school in the state for student growth. As of July 2012, KMCS will operate four schools- one elementary, two middle, and one high school- serving 800 students. It is the goal of KMCS to operate ten schools by 2016, with the ultimate capacity to serve over 4,500 students across Memphis. For more information about KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, please contact Executive Director, Jamal McCall:

Rocketship Education: (see description above).

Education Featured NewsTracker

Charters Filing Applications to Take Over Failing TN Schools

If all goes well, the state will give as many as four charter schools its blessing to take over some of the state’s worst performing schools, the superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District said.

Nine charter schools applied with the state to turn around any of 13 failing schools under the jurisdiction of the District, a branch of the state Department of Education focusing on low-performing schools.

“All we know is they can fill out an application. That’s the work now, to really evaluate the quality of them,” superintendent Chris Barbic said. “We’d love to see three or four of those guys get approved, but we’re going to have a high bar.”

Barbic said he would evaluate each charter’s leadership team, academic plans, and responses during in-person interviews.

Among the applicants is the Power Center Academy, a charter school in Memphis that won big recognition this week from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education for “dramatically improving student achievement in spite of the challenges they face.”

“Obviously we want to see folks that have a great track record,” Barbic told TNReport. “We don’t want to drag out the process unnecessarily. We also want to make sure we’re building in time for community buy-in as much as we can.”

Barbic said he’ll decide in November which charters to take on, then match each one up with a school in the district.

Education Featured

TN’s ‘Achievement’ Superintendent Welcomes Accountability

Chris Barbic used to belittle government bureaucrats running public education systems. In his view, “they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Now, as fate would have it, the Vanderbilt graduate and acclaimed Texas charter-school founder has become one of them. Or rather, he’s getting an opportunity to prove he can succeed where others have come up woefully short.

Selected by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman to become the first superintendent for Tennessee’s so-called “Achievement School District,” Barbic, 41, says he feels in some ways now like he’s “joined the dark side.”

Another way he looks at it, though, is that he’s been issued an education reformer’s challenge of a lifetime — the chance to apply his theories, philosophy, experience and knowledge on a larger and more politically significant scale than anything he’s done before.

The pitfalls are great, but the potential rewards profound. Barbic’s job is nothing short of figuring out how to replace academic despair and defeatism with success, excellence and optimism in Tennessee’s most dismally performing schools.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District was born out of the state’s federal Race to the Top application in which state officials promised to implement a bundle of reforms favored by the Obama administration. Tennessee was one of two states to win the first wave of awards, taking home $501 million in federal funding to apply toward boosting educational outcomes in the Volunteer State.

Right now, the district is helping run four schools in Memphis and one in Hamilton County, and holding a looser grip on operations in eight other schools in Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson.

Barbic began his teaching career with the Teach for America alternative certification program alongside Huffman — the man he credits for convincing him to accept a government job.

TNReport talked with Barbic about his vision for the Achievement School District, how he plans to cope with bureaucratic and political obstacles and what he believes the criteria ought to be for holding him accountable:

(Editor’s note: the following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

TNREPORT: What do you tell parents who wonder what it means for their child to be in the Achievement School District?

Barbic: Hopefully what it means is a better quality of education. And that’s what we’re committed to doing. And we’re committed to doing it in a way that’s going to be the least disruptive, with the least amount of turmoil, so that everyone in the building can focus on their child and not on all the other stuff that tend to get focused on. And that we’re going to do this thoughtfully and, to the extent possible, in partnership with the community and the school district…I think what we’re here to do is to work in partnership as best we can with the players in the community to create the best possible school we can. Because at the end of the day, let’s face it: We’re all going to be gone, we’re going to do other things, we’re going to move on, and it’s going to be the parents in that community that are going to have to own that school.

TNREPORT: Can you talk about what kind of role your charter-school background will play?

BARBIC: I think what I’ve come to realize is that this is less about traditional schools and charter schools, it’s more about how do we create more high performance schools, and how we do make sure that the below performing schools, whether charter or traditional, that we’re doing something to turn them around. And then the most extreme cases, if we have to, closing them and then restarting them with a new team and a new group of people. So I’m actually kind of agnostic on charter/non-charter. What I really care about is performance and making sure that every single kid in Tennessee has access to a great education, and so I think that’s really what the achievement school district is about.

TNREPORT: What would it mean for the ASD if the U.S. Department of Education accepts Tennessee’s waiver and exempts the state from the No Child Left Behind law?

BARBIC: It’s interesting because, it’s gotten to the point now where because the metrics in (the law), as they get closer to 2014, 2015, are so high, we would go from 13 schools to 38 schools to 800 schools in three years. … Obviously, we are not now and never will be able to handle that sort of capacity, so I think what the waiver does is it just better defines what is an ambitious target, and we want the targets to fit the school that everyone in the state is focused on, the First to the Top goals. We feel like those are ambitious goals but also practical goals, and if we can get to those goals then we’ll feel like we’ve moved the way we need to in the state of Tennessee to be where we want to be. So I think that’s important that people need to understand, that this is not about watering things down or going back to a time of five or 10 years ago. This is about, let’s create a realistic measure, an ambitious measure, but let’s have everybody focused on one goal post.

TNREPORT: How do you do that?

BARBIC: Changing education, as much as we’d like to think it’s about the programs, it’s not about programs. It’s about people. If you look at a new school budget, 80 percent of the budget is people. … So we need to evaluate who’s there, keep the great people and then figure out what we’re going to do to the folks that maybe need to move on to another school or to another profession. Make sure we’re recruiting and bringing in the best possible people we can find. Once you have that in place then you need to give the leaders some freedom and some flexibility. If the leader needs time to go over their schedule, if they want to extend the school day, they need to be able to do that. If they want to extend the school year they need to be able to do that. … And then, it’s accountability. It’s making sure that we are truly holding people and schools accountable based on data. We’ve tracked TVAAS data in the state for 20 years. It hadn’t been used at all to make decisions around what we’re doing with the people. I think it’s great to collect data, but if you’re not actually using the data to drive the decisions about what you’re doing in the school, then it’s kind of an exercise in futility.

TNREPORT: How do you plan on navigating the Legislature and state bureaucracy?

BARBIC: I don’t want to be naïve about the politics, but I wasn’t brought here to do that. I was brought here to be on the ground and work in schools. The governor, the commissioner, the Legislature, they can do that, and I feel like there’s the right leadership there with the right values and the right amount of courage to provide the cover that we’re going to need to do this work. This is going to be hard work, and we’re not always going to get it right. We’re going to make mistakes. Anytime you’re doing something new, it’s not going to be perfect. I feel like when the glass breaks and we make a mistake, as long as we own it and move on and learn from it we’re going to be okay.

TNREPORT: What gauge do you want used to hold you accountable?

BARBIC: Some of these schools haven’t been successful in decades, and so I think to expect, in one year, this is all going to change, is optimistic, but I think that’s a little naïve. I do think we need to be showing progress, and we need to be making solid gains, 10-point plus gains, each year. I mentioned Louisiana and New Orleans earlier in the conversation because that’s kind of what we were modeled after. If you look at the schools there — which before you could argue were some of the worst schools in the country — you’re seeing over the last four years gains in those schools in New Orleans that were higher than gains being made in the rest of the state. You’re seeing over the four-year stretch, 20-point proficiency gains for poor African-American kids in the schools. And I think those are the sort of gains we need to see in the Achievement School District. The absolute achievement may be a little different because kids are showing up at a different point, but the growth should be as good if not better than growth happening across the state.

TNREPORT: You expect these schools will perform at the same level as the best in the district?

BARBIC: Take Hamilton High School in Memphis. Hamilton High School in three years, if we’re where I want us to be, in three years Hamilton High School, when you look at the list of Memphis City Schools, top to bottom in terms of student achievement and you take out the optional schools where kids test in, Hamilton High School should be right up there at the top of the list with other schools in Memphis City Schools. And hopefully in five years it’s competing at the same level as some of the best schools in the state. And that’s the goal we’re going to set and the goal we’re going to work towards. And in three years if we haven’t gotten that done, then I shouldn’t be here. I think the ultimate accountability is, I shouldn’t have a job.

TNREPORT: How do you go about identifying the best teachers in the classrooms?

BARBIC: The evaluations are going to be key because it’s going to tell us who’s great and who’s not. And right now I’m not sure we can really, with confidence, say we know who those teachers are. I think that’s one. And, obviously, for those teachers who are knocking it out of the park, we want to keep them and make sure that they stay. And we also want to attract them, maybe they’re working at other schools, to come and be here. So that’s first. I think for folks who aren’t performing, the legislation is pretty clear that we have some flexibility there to make sure that we are getting the right people in the building. Without control over that, this becomes pretty much an uphill battle, so I think having that flexibility could be important. …My job is to make sure that we have the best possible people in the school, and we’re going to do that. And like I said, we’re going to do it judiciously. But if we don’t get that part right, the rest of it’s never going to happen.

TNREPORT: How are you reaching out to teachers?

BARBIC: The first thing that we’re doing is we want to get into the schools, and really see what’s going on like I mentioned before. And I think as we develop a gameplan for what it is we’re going to be doing, we want to make sure we’re communicating that to everybody, to the teachers, to the students, to the parents. We’re going to be starting some community forums, probably at the end of September, with folks in the community meeting with leaders in the community as…political leaders, faith leaders in the philanthropy community, folks that have traditionally been involved in education and education reform, and all the stakeholders are going to be an important part of making this happen. I think the key is, the goal is, to communicate what it is we’re doing. I think, I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone is going to embrace what it is we’re going to be doing, that’s not the goal.

But the goal is to be open, to have an honest conversation about what’s happening, for the community to – for there not to be any surprises for anyone when we do decide what it is we’re going to do so that everyone is fully aware, and I think that as long as we’re open, and there’s some transparency in the process, and we’ve got a good rationale for what it is we’re doing, that’s my goal. At the end of the day we’ll have as many supporters as we can. I think the key to building support is to deliver results. We can talk all we want but if we’re not actually getting it done, then it doesn’t really matter. So I think on the front end, it is going to require a little bit of a leap of faith from everybody, but after a year or two into this, if we haven’t gotten the community behind us because we haven’t delivered the results, then that’s on us. And we need to be held accountable for that.